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Symbols of The Mesopotamian God Nabu

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There were many gods in the Mesopotamian pantheon. In this lesson, we are going to check out the symbols of the god Nabu and see why he rose to become amongst the most important figures of ancient mythology.

Nabu

For us, writing is pretty commonplace. However, it wasn't always this way. There was a time when the very concept of writing was new. The oldest verified systems of writing in the world were developed in ancient Mesopotamia, the region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, what is roughly Iraq today. Writing was, of course, an extremely important part of Mesopotamian civilization. It was so important that they practically worshipped it. Actually, they literally worshipped it.

Nabu
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In the ancient Mesopotamian religions, the god of writing was known as Nabu. Nabu was the scribe (and in Babylonian traditions, the son) of the Marduk, the patron deity of Babylon and most powerful figure in that culture. As Marduk's scribe, Nabu was also the god of wisdom and learning, and had the ability to make prophecies come true by writing them. He could literally create through the power of words. This gives us a clue as to just how important writing was in ancient Mesopotamia. It was nothing short of miraculous.

Symbols of Nabu

As the scribe of Marduk, Nabu was the obvious patron of scribes in the royal court. As such, the most common symbols of Nabu were images associated with writing. Very often, we find Nabu represented by the shape of a wedge. Why a wedge? The ancient Mesopotamian writing system was known as cuneiform, and it was generally made by pressing a wedge-shaped stylus onto clay. So, Nabu's symbol was literally the writing utensil of the Mesopotamians. Very often, you'll see this symbol resting on a writing tablet, further reinforcing the association between the deity and the act of writing.

The Mesopotamian script of cuneiform was written with a wedge-shaped stylus
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Mesopotamian deities were not confined to human form, but they were sometimes depicted that way. When we see Nabu in human form, he appears with a nice, long beard (a symbol of manliness and kingly power) and wearing long royal robes with a slit skirt. The royal garb reminds us of his divinity, but also that scribes were royal officials. It's important to remember that very few people in ancient Mesopotamia could write. It was a rare and highly prized skill, and scribes were high-ranking members of the king's court.

Finally, we do see Nabu associated with a few other symbols as well. Sometimes, you'll see this royal scribe standing on the back of a giant serpent-monster known as the Mushussu Dragon. This fearsome beast was a protective spirit often found alongside Marduk, who Nabu served. Occasionally, you'll also see Nabu with a woman named Nisaba. Nisaba was the original goddess of writing in the earliest pantheon of Mesopotamian deities. Over time, she melded into Nabu, although in some myths she reappears as his wife and librarian of the gods.

Mushussu, as seen on the Ishtar Gate of Babylon
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Significance of Nabu

Nabu's symbols are important to us because they help us track the worship of this deity over time. What we've found is pretty interesting. Although Nabu was originally a Babylonian deity, his cult of worship spread across Mesopotamia as Babylon grew in power. He was adopted into several other Mesopotamian cultures and quickly rose to the highest ranks of those pantheons as well, and was actually adopted into their divine lineages. For example, in Assyria he became recognized as the son of Ashur (their head god), and in Sumer was considered the grandson of the god Enki. His influence was also noted by the ancient Hebrews, who wrote about him in the Bible, (Isaiah 46:1-2). In fact, Moses was said to have first glimpsed the promised land from the top of Mount Nebo, the Hebrew spelling of Nabu.

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